Swan’s first Christmas

FIRST CHRISTMASES are milestones in one’s life. At one time we were all too small and too young to know what all the excitement was about. Add a few years onto each kid’s life and slowly a sense of wonder emerges about the cold snowy season we call winter and the holiday festivities that come with it. Families attending church services one part of the process. And then, of course, the Santa Claus mystique gets wrapped up in the mix. Gifts are given. Recipients of those gifts smile with satisfaction.

This scribe wishes you and yours a very MERRY CHRISTMAS. To help you cherish the moment, today’s story also includes the traditional “The First Christmas” by the late John Garwood, a Times-Republican outdoor writer of the column called Sighting Upstream. In his essay, he paints a word picture of a mythical gathering of wildlife along the banks of the Iowa River. It is a clear winter night with the land covered in fresh snow. Animals of all kinds join in a sense of peace. Please read it again. Enjoy it again. And perhaps you can read it to little ones in your family who are old enough to grasp the concepts of native wildlife from the grasslands, forests and wetlands that are part of our natural winter landscape.

The Trumpeter Swan, subject of today’s photo, while sitting on the snowy banks of Green Castle’s pond, made this scribe recall Garwood’s timeless story. You might call it perfect timing to see a big white bird sitting on white snow under an overcast sky that was also mostly white. It is at peace with its surroundings. It is perfectly adapted to survive the rigors of a long winter.

CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNTS are taking place now all over the world between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Individuals or groups of people will tally up a list of feathered critters observed during this cold time of the year. It is like an annual census of what is here, or not here, depending upon the variances of weather and migrations mostly an afterthought. The Christmas Bird Count is the longest running citizen science project for conservation. It is free. It is fun. It is worth the effort. If you want to take part, one can register online at netapp.audubon.org/CBC/public/default.aspx.

The first year of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was accomplished on Christmas Day in the year 1900 by Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore, which later evolved into Audubon magazine. He and 26 others braved the weather to make their list, check it twice, and find out how many species were living in his neighborhood in the winter. Since that time, the CBC has grown. In 2012 there were at least 71,531 participants for the 113th CBC. There are expected to be more people participating for the 2013 winter bird census.

During the first CBC, only 25 locations of various habitats were observed. Last year the habitat and birding sites tallied 2,360 places in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, Bermuda, and the Caribbean and Pacific Islands. In 2012 the number of species documented was 640. The greatest number of avian species seen was in the area of Matagordo County Mad Island Marsh in Texas. This site has a 15-year run for most species seen during a CBC. One of the long-term trends from the record book tells of a 67 percent decline in populations of some common birds like northern bobwhite quail, evening grosbeaks and northern pintail ducks. Increases have also been noted for birds such as the Bald Eagle. Its population between 1967 and 2006 has grown by 6 percent per year, an incredible comeback of one of our most iconic birds.

Locally several groups of wildlife watchers and birders in particular braved the elements in and around Marshalltown and Marshall County for the Christmas Bird Count. I’ll have a summary of their sightings next week to share. Stay tuned. In the meantime, just get outside, get the binoculars up and keep a good bird book handy to verify what you observed.

How does one keep birds from flying into window glass? Lots of things have been tried. Some were a bit more successful than others. Still it happens that a bird sees what appears to it to be trees, bushes and sky, but in reality it is only the reflection of these things. Bump goes the bird, or should I say thump, plop. It can result in a dead bird. Recent findings to help prevent bird strikes have come upon another idea. This idea seems to work. It is offered from the American Bird Conservancy.

The most reflective windows can be the most deadly. Research had identified a new way to alert birds to the artificial barrier to their flight. It involves adding a pattern to the glass. Vertical stripes spaced four inches apart work. Or horizontal stripes spaced about two inches from each other do the trick also. The stripes can be tape, tempera paint, or a commercially made tape called, get this, BirdTape (www.abcbirdtape.com). Even duck tape split lengthwise into one-half-inch-wide segments can be used. Glue residue may be problem come spring. Tempera paints easily wash off with water. One drawback to window stripes is that you may think you are inside a jail cell, rather than free to wonder at will. Anyway, for what it is worth, give it a try on windows that may be vulnerable to bird flight collisions.

PHEASANTS are surviving this first series of snow. In and near the Green Castle reconstructed prairie grasses is a lot of cover. And in that cover are ringneck pheasants. Tracks in the snow at the Marietta Sand Prairie also tell of pheasants passing and meandering about in the tall grasses. So they are out there. They will do all they can to survive. There is still a long winter to go. And since today is the first official day of winter, the Winter Solstice, we have an official three months of the winter season ahead of us. January, February and March are hunker down times for upper Midwest folks. These next three months are a critical time for game birds, resident critters of all kinds, mammal or avian. Stores of fat reserves are part of the solution to surviving the cold, wind and snows of winter.

For those interested in some biological facts, try this one. Wildlife cannot be stockpiled. Period. You and I can collect inanimate objects of any and all descriptions. We can fill box after box with these things. We can display them, buy, sell or trade.

When it comes to wildlife, we cannot have more just by closing a season. It is way more complicated than that. Habitat needs are at the top of the list. Weather events, good or bad, are out of human control. Survival of wildlife depends on their ability to cope with conditions that come their way. Habitat that offers life sustaining elements assures to a large degree how a resilient breeding population will make it to next spring. The science of wildlife management is part science, and part art, in the sense that land managers attempt to manipulate vegetative cover of grasses, shrubs, trees and water in such a manner as to offer optimal life supporting habitat. And land also has a carrying capacity, an upper limit, of the total numbers of wild critters that can live there where each species can still find enough food, shelter, resting and nesting places. In other words, humans cannot cram more and more into the same space and think all is going to be okay. Wildlife cannot be stockpiled. Wildlife must be managed by people, by professional conservationists, landowners and citizens working together for long-term natural resource protection.

Think about this: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” – Albert Einstein.

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.